NAPA, Calif. — When coach Tom Cable arrived at training camp a year ago, he was greeted with an overweight quarterback who needed to be fined.
Along with dealing with the struggles of JaMarcus Russell all training camp, Cable, a Snohomish High School grad, was also dogged by allegations that he assaulted assistant Randy Hanson and could face criminal charges.
The story lines at the beginning of this training camp are much more pleasant for Cable, who starts his second full season as Raiders coach with a new quarterback in Jason Campbell and more optimism than usual around a franchise that has lost at least 11 games for seven straight seasons.
“There’s a lot of excitement but there’s also a lot of caution in that there’s a lot of work to do,” Cable said Wednesday. “I know we’re going to be a good team, and I’m not afraid to say that. We’re going to go after the AFC West. I’m not afraid to say that. I believe that that’s what we’re going to do. It’s not anybody’s. If they picked someone for it already, that’s too bad. It doesn’t work like that. You’ve got to play the games. This team will be ready to do that.”
The Raiders begin practice Thursday and will use a similar format to last year, with a first four days of “intensive learning.” The players will not wear pads for the first eight sessions of practice over four days as the coaches will re-teach everything from the beginning to make sure everybody is up to speed next week.
Cable said he was pleased with how that approach worked a year ago, even if it was hard for outsiders to see the results. He said there will be plenty of time for hitting starting next week.
“There’s a ton of benefits,” he said. “I think the first thing probably is just how our team got into camp and stayed healthy through camp, other than probably the loss of Chaz Schilens. You look at the soft-tissue injuries and things like that we didn’t have, that teams typically get in those first week, 10 days, we just didn’t have those issues.”
When practice starts Thursday, offseason acquisition Jason Campbell will be running with the first team at quarterback. When the Raiders acquired Campbell from Washington during the draft for a 2012 fourth-round draft pick, Cable said there would be an open competition at quarterback.
That remained the stance during minicamps and offseason workouts but Cable said Campbell is his starter right now because Bruce Gradkowski missed the past three months with a torn pectoral muscle.
Campbell started 52 games for Washington since being a first-round pick in 2005. He has thrown for 55 touchdowns, 38 interceptions and has a passer rating of 82.3 in his career.
He is coming off his best season, completing 64.5 percent of his passes with 20 touchdowns, 15 interceptions and a passer rating of 86.4. But the Redskins went 4-12 last season. Cable praised Campbell’s professionalism and leadership in the three months since the trade.
“You don’t have to be a boisterous, outgoing, run-your-mouth kind of guy to be a great leader,” Cable said. “He’s even showed some of that already, just this morning in some earlier things that went on, that he’s capable that way. … He loves it. It’s important to him. It was interesting talking to those guys last night after they got checked in, just how that whole group of quarterbacks, they’re so much further ahead and prepared right now than we’ve been. It’s a tribute to all those guys, and it starts with Jason.”
It’s a stark change from a year ago when Russell arrived for his third NFL season out of shape and uninspired. He struggled mightily in camp and when the season started before finally losing his job to Gradkowski midway through the campaign. He completed 48.8 percent of his passes, with three touchdowns, 11 interceptions and a 50.0 passer rating that was the lowest in 11 years. He was eventually released on May 6, shortly after the team’s mandatory minicamp.
Russell’s release was one of many moves made in hopes of improving the culture around a team that has endured so much losing in past years. The Raiders have placed a priority on adding players who have a history of winning in either college or the pros and Cable said he sees the difference.
“We are very competitive. Now it’s time to take the next step,” he said. “The next step is to not listen to all the negative. People are going to have an opinion. That’s just what it is. But they’re not going to dictate who we are or what we are. All that is back there. What’s in front of us is winning a championship. That’s the goal now. Let’s go for it.”
The only player missing Wednesday was first-round pick Rolando McClain, who still has not signed his rookie contract. Cable said he hopes the deal is done before practice starts Thursday.